Promenade; Il Vecchio Castello. A Castle in the Clouds?

Mussorgsky is on the move again. The key of the familiar Promenade  is now a tone lower than at the opening, more reflective, less brash, and the melody is in the tenor register as an unaccompanied solo voice, repeated with added chords above it , rather than below. The choice of harmonies, texture and range create a change of mood; the music is thoughtful, and instead of an emphatic final perfect cadence, Mussorgsky uses an open-ended imperfect cadence, ushering us along to the next picture.

Hartmann travelled widely in Europe, and his exhibition featured sketches from his journeys. In Italy he made a watercolour sketch of The Old Castle – Il Vecchio Castello – I wonder which one, and where? The picture no longer exists, but Mussorgsky’s music will sketch a different castle in the mind of each listener. To fuel the imagination, below is the Rocca Borromeo di Angera, Borromeo Castle in Angera, dated 1880, drawn by writer and painter Samuel Butler.

Angera Castle


Mussorgsky adds a troubadour playing a lute to his musical representation of the castle; this is a stroke of genius, adding the human dimension. The preceding A flat major Promenade cadence now resolves onto a tonic of G# minor; a  LH drone underpins a melody which is modal, meandering and melancholy. Marked Andante molto cantabile e con dolore, a rocking 6/8 time signature and irregular phrase lengths add to the hypnotic feel of the music. Unhurried, it moves sadly towards its conclusion, becoming ever more fragmented and broken, repeating itself as if constantly revisiting painful memories. Mysterious chords and a final, defiant gesture of the two opening notes of the melody bring us to the end. The tonic lingers on in the bass, unwilling to let go.

Here is Pletnev –



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Gnomus – the Nutcracker Gnome

GnomeA sudden shock. After the brisk stride of Mussorgsky’s Promenade, the gait changes to the lurching, limping stagger of ‘Gnomus’: a picture of a toy nutcracker in the shape of a Gnome, with crooked legs. Hartmann’s picture no longer exists, but the music tells us much. This is not a humorously benevolent garden gnome; it’s more the darkly malevolent variety. Perhaps the image on the left captures something of the idea.

In an abrupt change, the noble, B flat major chordal texture of the Promenade disappears, replaced by a gruff , E flat minor melody in the low register, with halting, staggering steps, pausing to catch its breath.

RH syncopated chords descend as the LH ascends in ungainly intervals; the music pivots around and halts, like an uncontrolled movement, brusquely checked.

The hands share crawling octaves and wide uneven steps, suddenly reversed, before menacing LH trills and evil chromatic snarls below swooping RH chords crescendo to piercing dissonances and a petrified silence – and a quick, frantic sprint in contrary motion to the safety of the final chord.

Below, Byron Janis performs ‘Gnomus’ from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The artwork below is by Natasha Turovsky.


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Pictures and Promenades – Mussorgsky goes for a walk

Russian Academy of Fine Arts

It was to the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg  [above] –  now known as the Russian Academy of Fine Arts –  that Mussorgsky went in 1874 to visit his deceased friend’s paintings. Quite an impressive building in itself, and Hartmann’s exhibition was also impressive, comprising over 400 works – watercolours, drawings and sketches.  What grandeur and splendour as a backdrop for this exhibition. Hartmann, as an architect, would have been delighted.

Russian Academy of Fine Arts panorama

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition opens with a musical ‘selfie’, an ambulatory Promenade as the composer walks in – you can almost hear his pride as he enters the gallery. Although the metre is irregular, with alternate bars of 5 beats and 6 beats, the tread is steady, the mood confident, the pace purposeful. Allegro giusto, the score tells us, nel modo russico, senza allegrezza, ma poco sostenuto.


The Royal Marriage at St Petersburg, the Greek Ceremony, in the Imperial Chapel of the Winter Palace1874 was a significant year for Mussorgsky, and for St Petersburg. In January, the world premiere of Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov took place. The exhibition of paintings took place in February and March. And also in March, Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Albert, Duke of Edinburgh, married the Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia in the Imperial Chapel of the Winter Palace [left].

The Illustrated London News was there, publishing ‘Sketches in St Petersburg during the Royal Marriage Festivities, [below, right] .Sketches in St Petersburg during the Royal Marriage Festivities



And there were other ‘Sketches in St Petersburg’ published too, in April 1874 [below].

So that is where the exhibition took place, and these were the people on the streets that year, when Mussorgsky ventured out for his Promenade.

We’ll hear further Promenades as he walks about, his reactions reflected in their speeds, keys and registers. But next, on to the first painting …




Sketches in St Petersburg








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Pictures – Background and Perspective

In 1874 the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky attended an exhibition of paiVictor Hartmannntings by his friend Victor Hartmann, painter and architect (left), who had died the previous year. Mussorgsky immortalized the exhibition by composing a work based on some of the pictures which he saw. He also immortalized his own attendance by incorporating a series of ‘Promenades’, all based on the same musical theme, which show his changing moods and reactions as he walks about.

What a unique idea. Works of art have inspired pieces of music before and since – Liszt’s Sposalizio and Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse spring to mind – but to capture a number of pictures plus the viewer’s response  is surely a one-off. Mussorgsky composed the piece in three weeks, using the name Hartmann as a working title. In a letter to Vladimir Stassov, the art critic whose idea the exhibition was, Mussorgsky wrote:

‘My dear généralissime, Hartmann is seething as Boris [his opera, Boris Godunov] seethed,—sounds and ideas hang in the air, I am gulping and overeating, and can barely manage to scribble them on paper. I am writing the 4th №—the transitions are good (on the ‘promenade’). I want to work more quickly and reliably. My physiognomy can be seen in the interludes. So far I think it’s well turned… ‘


Mighty_HandfulMusssorgsky was a member of the group known variously as ‘ the Five’, ‘The Balakirev Circle’ or ‘the Mighty Handful’, five Russian nationalist composers [left] who sought to give a distinctly Russian identity to their music, rather than a European flavour. Remarkably, they were largely self-taught amateurs; Mussorgsky’s ‘day-job’ was in the civil service.

So – got your ticket for the exhibition? And you’re wearing comfortable shoes? Right. Let’s go through the door of the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg and start the tour …



Mily Balakirev (top) César Cui (upper left)
Modest Mussorgsky (upper right)
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (lower left)
Alexander Borodin (lower right)

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Pictures at an Exhibition

Great GateAnother year -another theme for my blog. In 2016 we are going north to Russia, for composers such as Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin and ‘The Mighty Five’, of whose compositions Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is one of the most celebrated works for piano.

Join me this year as we wander around Hartmann’s exhibition of paintings, [The Great Gate of Kiev, left,] and wander through Moussorgsky’s musical realisation of them. And we’ll explore solo works by the above Russian composers, for two hands and for left hand alone, some duets for four hands, two pieces for six hands, and a suite for four hands at two pianos. A very hands-on experience.

I look forward to your company …

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Debussy, the children, and Le Pain Quotidien

I wanted to find a Christmas-themed piece by Debussy for this, the final post of 2015. Something cosy, with a feel-good factor. Perhaps involving children. So I googled ‘Debussy, Noël‘ and immediately I found what I was looking for.

Well, almost.  Actually, it was quite a shock.



Yes, it is for Christmas. And it’s for children. But it is for homeless children, with both the text and the music written by Debussy in December 1915, a hundred years ago this month; a plea on behalf of French children made homeless during World War I, whose houses have been destroyed, who have lost their mother, their school and their teacher, their bed and their shoes – and who ask not for toys, but for ‘le pain quotidien‘  – our daily bread.

Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maisons was published in 1916, written for solo s-l225voice, and subsequently arranged for two parts, as in the YouTube performance given by the French boys above. Marked doux et triste, the vocal melody glides and chatters above an impatient accompaniment which rattles along beneath. It is Debussy’s final song, a Christmas carol with a difference. A sobering note on which to conclude this year’s series of pieces by composers from The Lunch that Never Happened – Brahms, Debussy, Beethoven and Schubert.

Many thanks to you all for reading and for keeping me company in 2015. See you next year….


Nous n’avons plus de maisons !
Les ennemis ont tout pris, tout pris, tout pris,
Jusqu’à notre petit lit!
Ils ont brûlé l’école et notre maître aussi,
Ils ont brûlé l’église et monsieur Jésus-Christ,
Et le vieux pauvre qui n’a pas pu s’en aller!
Nous n’avons plus de maisons!
Les ennemis ont tout pris, tout pris, tout pris,
Jusqu’à notre petit lit!

Bien sûr! Papa est à la guerre,
Pauvre maman est morte!
Avant d’avoir vu tout ça.
Qu’est-ce que l’on va faire ?
Noël, petit Noël, n’allez pas chez eux, n’allez plus jamais chez eux, punissez-les !
Vengez les enfants de France !
Les petits Belges, les petits Serbes, et les petits Polonais aussi !
Si nous en oublions, pardonnez-nous.
Noël ! Noël ! surtout, pas de joujoux,
Tâchez de nous redonner le pain quotidien.

Nous n’avons plus de maisons!
Les ennemis ont tout pris, tout pris, tout pris.

Jusqu’à notre petit lit!
Ils ont brûlé l’école et notre maître aussi,
Ils ont brûlé l’église et monsieur Jésus-Christ,
Et le vieux pauvre qui n’a pas pu s’en aller !

Noël ! Écoutez-nous, nous n’avons plus de petits sabots !
Mais donnez la victoire aux enfants de France.



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Brahms and his ‘nebulous garb of rhapsodies’ … Op 79

Elisabeth von HerzogenbergIf you’re looking for a Big Romantic Piece for a post-grade 8 level pianist, look no further. Brahms’  Rhapsody Op 79 No 2 has it all: a sweeping , dramatic opening, a beguiling, pleading second subject and a mysterious repeated triplet figure beneath which octaves tread stealthily, creating an atmosphere of suspense which builds to shattering climaxes. I’ve yet to find any teenager who didn’t love this piece and revel in its challenges.

Written in 1879 and dedicated to Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, above left, who had been a pupil of Brahms, the piece is marked Molto passionato ma non troppo allegro, and opens with a distinctive technical feature where the LH crosses the RH to play notes in the melody, thus cleverly avoiding unevenness in the accompaniment.

Technically there are large chords and octave leaps, so hand-span is a consideration. Good independence of the fingers will also be needed.  It needs a bold approach, tempered by an appreciation of the mysterious, especially in those ppp passages where the music almost stands still in some sort of harmonic limbo, in spite of the ever-present, murmuring triplets.

Brahms’ musical fingerprints are all over the score, both by virtue of the texture and the harmonic language. Note also the typical, written-out rallentando as the note values gradually lengthen towards the end of the piece before the two final, defiant chords.

Brahms and Elisabeth corresponded most engagingly  about this rhapsody and its companion, Op 79 no 1 in B minor. Elisabeth wrote on February 4, 1880: ….‘But the fact that the G minor is my favourite does not make me insusceptible to the rugged beauty of the B minor with its very sweet trio. The way the trio theme is indicated beforehand  is quite wonderful. Indeed, the whole of this episode, with the right-hand triplets and the expressive basses, is another case where words are inadequate. One is so glad that the piece closes with that too, leaving the most impressive part uppermost in the mind…’ 

She goes on to write of  the pain of a sleepless night, then continues:

‘…. But at sight of the two much-admired pieces I forgot all my grief and pain, and greeted them like old friends. It is hard to believe that there ever was a time when I did not know them, so quickly does the barely acquired treasure become incorporated with the accumulation of long standing. Once known and loved, it is a possession for all time. And, indeed, these pieces seem to me beautiful beyond measure — more and more beautiful as I come to know their bends and turnings, their exquisite ebb and flow, which affects me so extraordinarily, especially in the G minor…’

Brahms subsequently wrote to say that he wished to dedicate the pieces to her. She replied on May 3rd, 1880:

My dear Friend, – what a charming surprise! For, in spite of your breathing from time to time of a kind intention to dedicate something to me, I never quite believed in it… and now you put me to shame by giving me just these two glorious pieces for my own. I need not dwell upon my great delight over the dedication. You know whether I love these pieces or not, and you know whether I am bound to be delighted or not at seeing my name flaunt itself on a production of your brain. So let me say simply thank you, though with all my heart. Elisabeth von Herzogenberg_2As to your inquiry, you know I am always most partial to the non-committal word ‘Klavierstücke’ just because it is non-committal; but probably that won’t do, in which case the name Rhapsodien is the best, I expect, although the clearly-defined form of both pieces seems somewhat at variance with one’s conception of a rhapsody.
But it is practically a characteristic of these various designations that they have lost their true characteristics through application, so that they can be used for this or that at will, without many qualms…
Welcome, then, ye (to me) nameless ones, in your nebulous garb of rhapsodies!’

Welcome indeed.

The full text of the Brahms-Herzogenberg correspondence can be found here.



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